'We'll just have to see': Churchill Downs CEO leaves Arlington's future uncertain

  • Churchill Downs Inc., the owner of Arlington International Racecourse in Arlington Heights, has committed to keeping the track open at least until 2021. But its long-term future remains in limbo and its CEO offered no reassurances for racing fans during an earnings call with investors Thursday.

    Churchill Downs Inc., the owner of Arlington International Racecourse in Arlington Heights, has committed to keeping the track open at least until 2021. But its long-term future remains in limbo and its CEO offered no reassurances for racing fans during an earnings call with investors Thursday. Daily Herald File Photo, August 2019

  • Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen

    Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen

 
 
Updated 10/31/2019 8:27 PM

The future of Arlington International Racecourse wasn't made any clearer Thursday when its corporate owner discussed the historic track and its other suburban interests with investors.

During a quarterly earnings call Thursday morning, Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen reiterated the company's commitment to keep the Arlington Heights racetrack open through 2021 -- leaving its long-term future in limbo -- while he doubled down on a decision not to seek slots and table games once seen as a lifeline for the struggling horse racing industry.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

After years of lobbying for those gambling positions, the Louisville, Kentucky-based company made the surprise announcement in August that it wouldn't apply for a casino license for Arlington, despite being allowed to do so under the massive gambling expansion package approved by lawmakers in June.

"I think with Arlington I've said all I should responsibly say," Carstanjen told analysts during a conference call to review the company's third-quarter financial results. "We can't proceed with respect to this gaming bill at that facility at that time. That's something we think about and work on, and it's something we're committed to figuring out, because we think there could be a good result for everybody if we are responsible and thoughtful and play our cards right. But we'll just have to see."

"We're anticipating at this point running racing there over the next two years, although we hope there's news over that period that really defines the long-term future," Carstanjen added.

Carstanjen again floated the possibility of Arlington moving its racing license elsewhere in the Chicago area or downstate, suggesting it may be more "economically viable" elsewhere.

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"We will continue to explore all of the potential options with respect to Arlington Park and the future of thoroughbred racing there," he said.

The Illinois Racing Board in September awarded Arlington its request for 68 live racing dates in the 2020 season, but not before a rare one-week delay in the vote. Members of the regulatory agency sought greater assurances from Churchill officials about long-term racing plans at Arlington.

While Churchill's top corporate attorney sidestepped some of the board's more pointed questions, the panel eventually agreed to award the race dates, saying they didn't want to disrupt the upcoming season.

Echoing earlier statements, Carstanjen on Thursday took issue with portions of the new state gambling law that he said would make it hard for Arlington to gain an acceptable financial return were it to apply for up to 1,200 slots and table game positions the law allows for. He pointed to an increasingly competitive gambling market and the additional taxes, reconciliation payments and increased purse contributions Arlington would have to pay if it obtained a casino license.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Carstanjen reiterated that Arlington does plan to apply for a sports betting license and is awaiting sports betting regulations to be issued by the Illinois Gaming Board.

Churchill obtained a 61% stake in Rivers Casino in Des Plaines last March, and in contrast to its plans for Arlington, is moving ahead with adding 800 gambling positions, as authorized under the state law.

Churchill and Rush Street Gaming -- the co-owners of Rivers -- also issued a joint bid for a new casino in Waukegan. That application, along with two others submitted by Waukegan, were formally unsealed by the gaming board Tuesday, starting a 12-month clock for the state agency to vet them.

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